Net taps Naito as veep longform development

Major changes are in store for Cartoon Network, which will step outside its charter for the first time and into live-action programming.

Cabler has opened its doors to the unanimated world as part of a larger development department expansion that includes select live-action theatrical movie buys and the creation of a longform unit.

Nickelodeon Movies vet Ramsey Naito has been brought in to oversee the latter division as VP of longform development. Heather Kenyon, recently upped to senior director of original development, will oversee the series side. Both execs will report to senior VP Michael Ouweleen.

At the same time, Cartoon is pumping up its inhouse development of animated shorts — content that can serve a range of purposes from potential pilots to interstitials to projects for the Web, on-demand and mobile platforms. Craig McCracken, creator of Cartoon’s “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” will serve as executive consultant for the shorts division, while Rob Renzetti, another recruit from Nick, will work as a supervising producer.

Cartoon general manager Jim Samples and Ouweleen stressed that the kids net isn’t getting less animated, per se, but did confirm that the cabler is now taking non-toon pitches for both series and original movies. At least one series project is nearing an official development deal.

Ouweleen, a 10-year Cartoon staffer, characterized the live-action agenda as not entirely aggressive. “The doors are open, but there’s no mandate to have a certain number of live-action shows on the network, or any at all,” he said. “We’re just open to seeing what’s out there.”

He’d prefer to get “animation-inspired” projects but couldn’t define any criteria. “I think we’ll know the right project when we see it,” he said.

Changes arrive as Cartoon continues to trail competitors Nickelodeon and Disney in the total day race for kids 6-11. First quarter results have Nick ensconced in the top spot and Cartoon lagging Disney by a little more than 100,000 viewers in the demo. Cabler is also off 17% in primetime from first quarter 2005 but has seen Saturday morning success with new originals “Ben 10″ and “My Gym Partner Is a Monkey.”

Ouweleen said plans to bolster the development group have been in place for a couple years. The number of original series premieres have increased to five for 2006, including “Class of 3000,” the high-profile skein from Outkast’s Andre Benjamin. And the shorts program that McCracken is helping shepherd has churned out new half-hours like “Squirrel Boy.”

It’s only recently, however, that execs began taking meetings for live-action originals.

First step into the genre will be the original movie “Re-Animated,” a hybrid animated/live-action event slated for the fall about a boy who can see cartoon characters others can’t. Net also announced original movies based on the cartoons “Codename: Kids Next Door,” “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and “Teen Titans” at its upfront last month.

“One thing we all agreed on two years ago was that we needed to be in the event business, and we think this longform division will put us right in the game,” Ouweleen said.

Cartoon has been testing the performance of live-action features like “Batman,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Ace Ventura” on air since late last year. Most recently, cabler drew a big 2.3 million viewers to a showing of the Jim Carrey comedy “Dumb and Dumber” on Friday. Net will make an event out of the “Spider-Man” premiere later this summer.

Ouweleen points out that certain comedies on network TV, including “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” are “by and large live-action cartoons. There’s no reason we couldn’t do something similar for kids.”

And while certain cartoons such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” continue to attract big crowds, a live-action launch like Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” can attract even more attention. “Hannah” also drew a big 5.4 million (2.3 million kids 6-11) during its premiere showing two weeks ago. Cartoon’s top shows “Ben 10″ and “My Gym Partner…” have averaged 680,000 and 647,000 viewers in the demo, respectively.

But Ouweleen remained adamant: “We’re not looking to make live-action our main thing. No way. We’re still the cartoon warehouse.”

Naito spent the past six years at Nickelodeon Movies, where she supervised the development, production and marketing for features “Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius,” “Rugrats in Paris” and “Rugrats Gone Wild.” Renzetti worked on Nick’s “My Life as a Teenage Robot” and “Whatever Happened to Robot Jones.” He also directed episodes of “Family Guy” and “Power Puff Girls.”

Kenyon was previously editor-in-chief of Animation World Network and worked in animation at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.

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